Sabatier, Paul

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(b. Carcassonne, France, 5 November 1854; d. Toulouse, France, 14 August 1941)


Sabatier achieved scientific distinction for his pioneering work in catalysis. From a family of modest means, he had his secondary education at Carcassonne and then at Toulouse. Admitted to the École Normale Supérieure in 1874, he received the agrégé in the physical sciences in 1877 and was first in his class. He taught briefly at the lycée of Nîmes, then, encouraged by Berthelot, entered the latter’s laboratory at the Collège de France in 1878 and received his doctorate in the physical sciences in 1880. After a year at Bordeaux, Sabatier taught at Toulouse, where he was named to the chair of chemistry in 1884, when he was thirty, the minimum age for the post.

In 1907 Sabatier was offered Moissan’s chair at the Sorbonne and that of Berthelot at the Collége de France. Although he realized that all candidates for the Académie des Sciences were required to be residents of Paris, he nevertheless chose to remain at Toulouse. In 1912 he shared the Nobel prize in chemistry with Victor Grignard, and in 1913 he became the first scientist elected to one of six chairs newly created by the Academy for provincial members. At this time Sabatier also was dean of the Faculty of Sciences at Toulouse, a post he held officially from 1905 to 1929. He was instrumental in founding three schools of applied science at Toulouse—in chemistry, electrical engineering, and agriculture. Both by personal example and by administrative action, Sabatier was throughout his life an important influence in steps toward the decentralization of scientific institutions in France.

Sabatier’s initial researches were inorganic studies within the thermochemical tradition of Berthelot’s laboratory. They included analyses of metallic and alkaline-earth sulfides and of chlorides, the preparation of hydrogen disulfide by vacuum distillation, the isolation of selenides of boron and silicon, the definition of basic cupric salts containing four copper atoms, and preparations of the deep blue nitrosodisulfonic acid and the basic mixed argentocupric salts. He studied the partition of a base between two acids, using the spectrophotometric change of coloration of chromates and dichromates as an indicator of acidity, and analyzed the velocity of transformation of metaphosphoric acid. In 1895 Sabatier had begun the preparation of metals by reduction of their oxides with hydrogen, when he noted with interest British chemists’ preparation of nickel carbonyl by the direct action of carbon monoxide on finely divided nickel. Wondering if other unsaturated gaseous molecules might behave analogously to carbon monoxide, he succeeded in 1896 in fixing nitrogen peroxide on copper, cobalt, nickel, and iron.

Sabatier then learned that Moissan and Charles Moureu had failed to achieve a similar result with acetylene. Assured that they did not intend to pursue the experiment, he repeated it with the less violent hydrocarbon ethylene, heating an oxide of nickel to 300°C, in a current of hydrogen gas and then directing a current of ethylene upon the slivers of reduced nickel. He found that the resulting gaseous product was not hydrogen, as Moissan had assumed, but mostly ethane resulting from the hydrogenation of ethylene. Sabatier then succeeded in oxidizing acetylene to ethylene and ethane, and in 1901 attempted the transformation of benzene into cyclohexane. Berthelot had failed to do this with a hydriodic-acid hydrogenation agent, but Sabatier succeeded with benzene vapors and hydrogen over reduced nickel at 200°C.

In the next years Sabatier continued this work on hydrogenating organic compounds in the presence of finely disintegrated metals, for which he was awarded the 1912 Nobel Prize. Assisted by his student J. B. Senderens, Sabatier demonstrated the general applicability of his method to the hydrogenation of nonsaturated and aromatic carbides, ketones, aldehydes, phenols, nitriles, and nitrate derivatives. He synthesized methane from carbon monoxide, and demonstrated that at higher temperatures his hydrogenation procedures would lead to dehydrogenation, applying this principle to the production of aldehydes and ketones from their corresponding primary and secondary alcohols. Sabatier established that certain metallic oxides, particularly manganous oxide, behave analogously to metals in hydrogenation and dehydrogenation, although at slower rates: and that powdered oxides such as thoria, alumina, and silica possess hydration and dehydration properties. For example, reduced copper acts as a catalyst for splitting alcohol vapors into hydrogen and aldehyde, whereas replacing copper with alumina results in a division of alcohol into water and ethylene.

Sabatier’s La catalyse en chimie organique first appeared in 1913, its utility enhanced by a principally empirical and analogical approach. His theory of catalytic mechanism, later termed “chemisorption,” strongly opposed that of most nineteenth-century chemists. Berzelius, Ostwald, and others had assumed that known catalyzed reactions—such as the effect of platinum on the combustion of hydrogen and oxygen—resulted from an absorption of gases in the cavities of the porous metal, where compression and local temperature elevation led to chemical combination.

In contrast, Sabatier believed that in both homogeneous and hterogeneous systems, a temporary, unstable intermediary between the catalyst and one of the reactants forms on the surface of the catalyst. The intermediary’s combination with the second reactant regenerates the catalyst. Like his predecessors’ theory, Sabatier’s view implied that the activity of a catalyst increases with its granular surface area; he thus also accounted for poisoning of a catalyst by impurities and for fatigue by surface modifications. But unlike his predecessors, Sabatier indicated that the course of a reaction would depend upon the chemical as well as the physical natuer of the catalyst, a contention supported by his ability to manipulate the products of a reaction by substituting one catalyst for another (an oxide for a metal, for example). His view also predicted the empirically verified facts that a catalyst of hydrogenation will be equally one of dehydrogenation, and that promoters of catalysis are often the same types of material as inhibitors or poisons.

Although his work laid the foundation for many of the giant industries of the twentieth century, Sabatier paid little or no attention to the practical applications of his discoveries. He had no interest in liquid-phase hydrogenation and avoided high-pressure hydrogenation techniques. He obtained a few French patents, including one of 1909, which envisioned means of cracking heavy fractions of petroleum on a metal catalyst and then hydrogenating the volatile products.


I. Original Works. Sabatier’s most important publication was La catalyse en chimie organique (Paris, 1913: 2nd ed., 1920). E. Emmet Reid’s translation. Catalysis in Organic Chemistry (New York, 1923), has been revised and reprinted in Catalysis Then and Now (Palisades Park, N.J., 1965), which contains numerous references to Sabatier’s papers on catalysis. His two other major publications were his thesis, Recherches thermiques sur les sulfures (Paris, 1880) and Leçons élémentaires de chimie agricole (Paris, 1890). His 1926 address before the American Chemical Society in Cincinnati, Ohio, records his recollections about his work: “How I Have Been Led to the Direct Hydrogenation Method by Metallic Catalysts,” in Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, 18 (Oct. 1926), 1005–1008.

II. Secondary Literature. There is no biography of Sabatier other than Lucien Babonneau’s “Paul Sabatier,” in Génies occitans de la science (Toulouse, 1947), 167–189. Other discussions of his life and work are in Gabriel Bertrand, Charles Camichel, et al., Cérémonies du centenaire de la naissance de Paul Sabatier á Toulouse (Handaye, 1954); Charles Camichel, Gaston Dupouy et al., Centenaire Paul Sabatier, Prix Nobel. Membre de l’Institut. 1854–1954 (Toulouse, 1956); and J. R. Partington, “Paul Sabatier,” in Nature, 174 (1954), 859–860.

Mary Jo Nye

Sabatier, Paul

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Calvinist pastor and writer; b. Saint-Michel-de-Chabrillaneux, France, Aug. 3, 1858; d. Strasbourg, March 4, 1928. After studying at the Faculty of Theology in Paris under renan, Sabatier served as pastor in Strasbourg (188589). His bestselling Vie de S. François d'Assise (Paris 1894; éd. définitive, relatively unchanged, 1931; Eng. tr. London 1894) was marked by animus against the papacy and the veneration of saints. It was placed on the Index in 1894.

Despite Sabatier's impressive learning and a charming style, his subjective portrait of francis of assisi, excluding the sacramental and the supernatural, was demonstrably unhistorical in attributing to the saint a hostile and grudging obedience to the Church. In 1908 Sabatier publicly admitted this error: "It would be absurd to make St. Francis of Assisi a rebel or an unconscious Protestant." Resigning his pastorate in 1894, he devoted himself to the study and publication of early Franciscan documents, for expamle, the Actus Beati Francisci et Sociorum Ejus (Paris 1902), the Latin original of the fioretti ; and the Speculum Perfectionis. Sabatier's stubbornly maintained theory that the saint's secretary, Brother Leo (Leo of Assisi), wrote the latter in 1227 has been rejected by experts, who see in it a compilation made in 1318 of earlier texts, including some written by Leo in 1246 or later.

Between 1904 and 1914 Sabatier played an active part in Modernism, writing An Open Letter to His Eminence Cardinal Gibbons (Boston 1908) and delivering the Jowett Lectures on Modernism (London 1908). During World War I he substituted for drafted pastors, and defended the spiritual ideals of the Allied cause in A Frenchman's Thoughts on the War (London 1915). From 1919 until his death he taught at the University of Strasbourg. His (Franciscan) Études inédites (Paris 1932) reveal a marked intellectual evolution in his understanding of and sympathy for medieval spirituality. The stimulus and contributions that he made to Franciscan scholarship remain monumental.

Bibliography: c. brooke, "Paul Sabatier and St. Francis of Assisi," in St. Francis of Assisi: Essays in Commemoration (St. Bonaventure, N.Y. 1982) 4158. p. sabatier, "The Originality of St. Francis of Assisi," in St. Francis of Assisi: Essays in Commemoration (St. Bonaventure, N.Y. 1982) 2540. t. vetrali, ed., "Francesco d'Assis Attesa Dell'Ecumeniso: Paul Sabatier e la sua 'Vita di S Francesco' Cent'Anni Dopo," Studi Ecumenici 12 (Jl-S, 1994) 1191. societa internazionale di studi francescani, La Questione Francescana da Sabatier ad oggi: Atti del I Covegno Internazionale (Assisi 1973).

[r. brown]

Paul Sabatier

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Paul Sabatier

The French chemist Paul Sabatier (1854-1941) is best known for his work in the field of catalyzed gas phased reactions.

Paul Sabatier was born in Carcassonne on Nov. 5, 1854. After graduating from the École Normale Supérieure in 1874 and teaching a year in the lycée at Nîmes, he became a laboratory assistant at the Colle‧gede France in 1878. Two years later he received his doctoral degree with a thesis on the thermochemistry of sulfur and the metallic sulfides. After serving as maître de conference in physics in the faculty of sciences at Bordeaux for a year, he took charge of the course in physics in the faculty of sciences at Toulouse, the school at which he remained for the rest of his life. He became professor of chemistry in 1884 and went on to become one of the most brilliant representatives of the French chemical school.

After completing his thesis, Sabatier turned his attention to a host of inorganic and physical problems related to the thermochemistry of sulfides, chlorides, and chromates. A detailed study of the rate of transformation of metaphosphoric acid, studies on absorption spectra, and measurement of the partition coefficients of a base between two acids were included in the first 2 decades of his work.

Sabatier's efforts in the field of organic chemistry began about 1897 and led to the enunciation of a theory of catalytic hydrogenation over finely divided metals such as nickel, copper, cobalt, iron, and platinum. With the help of his colleagues he not only carried out a large number of experimental studies on catalytic hydrogenation but also proposed a theory of catalysis that is still useful and sound. He suggested that reactants combine with each other over catalysts as a result of forming unstable complexes or compounds with the catalyst surface. For this hypothesis and for his numerous experimental catalytic studies, science and industry will be eternally grateful.

The chemist received many honors. He was elected a member of the French Academy of Sciences, commander of the Légion d'Honneur, and an honorary member of the Royal Society of London, the Academy of Madrid, and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences. He was awarded many prizes and medals as well, and "for his method of hydrogenating organic compounds in the presence of finely divided nickel" he received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1912.

Sabatier is described as being reserved and detached. He was fond of art and gardening. From his marriage to Mademoiselle Herail there were four daughters, one of whom married the Italian chemist Emile Pomilio. Sabatier died on Aug. 14, 1941.

Further Reading

Biographical information on Sabatier is in Eduard Farber, Nobel Prize Winners in Chemistry, 1901-1950 (1953); Eduard Farber, ed., Great Chemists (1961); and Nobel Foundation, Chemistry: Nobel Lectures, Including Presentation Speeches and Laureates' Biographies (3 vols., 1964-1966). □

Sabatier, Paul

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Sabatier, Paul (1854–1941) French chemist; jointly with Senderens discovered the process for catalytic hydrogenation of oils to solid fats (1899); Nobel Prize 1912.